Nine summers ago, Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals in order to enlist in the U.S. Army and fight for his country. That, and the rest of his heroic yet chilling story, has become a legendary piece of American history.
It’s a story that covers several of the most romanticized properties in American culture: war, sacrifice and professional sports. That’s why Tillman’s story has become a hot topic for sports radio hosts and columnists across the nation on the Fourth of July. It gives the media and the fans a chance to tie it all together, and it appears to be a strong link between patriotism and sports.
The problem, though, is that the story isn’t actually romantic at all. Maybe it’s because we’ve become desensitized by Hollywood melodrama, but we’re trying to force Tillman into a role that he wouldn’t have wanted.
Tillman’s family has fought hard to distance Pat from the Army, which reportedly attempted to cover up the fact that he died as a result of friendly fire before propping him up as a martyr to be the face of a familiar propaganda machine.
Meanwhile, there are those who are having a tough time with the Tillman-NFL connection. He walked away from professional football, he was about way more than the National Football League, and it’s impossible to compare Tillman to football legends.
Today, NFL.com asked five of its “experts” to chime in on whether Tillman should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The consensus was that Tillman’s contributions should be recognized by the world of professional football, but difficulty arises in trying to determine how to do so without undermining the significance of his story.
My favorite piece of Hall of Fame criteria: Can you tell the story of the history of the game without the player in question? The thing about Tillman is that you can tell the story of the history of pro football without him, but you shouldn’t be able to tell the story of American history without him. He’s bigger than the NFL. He’s bigger than sports.
Pat Tillman the football player has no business in the Hall of Fame, but as Adam Rank points out in his take on Tillman, “America needs to hear Pat’s story.” Tillman’s story is beautifully unique, which is why his inclusion in the Hall has to be unique. His bust wouldn’t fit in next to Lawrence Taylor and O.J. Simpson. In fact, some might consider such a scenario to be insulting and inappropriate.
No, Tillman needs his own separate shrine. The Hall of Fame has to install a Pat Tillman Room. And in that room, they can tell America Tillman’s story while honoring other NFL players who have served their country historically.
That, in my opinion, is the most appropriate and sincere way for a pro sports league to honor an American hero.